History: This book was first published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan's Magazine in 1880–1881 and then as a book in 1881.
Plot: Isabel Archer, originally from Albany, New York, is invited by her maternal aunt, Lydia Touchett, to visit Lydia's rich husband Daniel at his estate near London, following the death of Isabel's father. There, she meets her cousin Ralph Touchett, a friendly invalid, and the Touchetts' robust neighbor, Lord Warburton. Isabel later declines Warburton's sudden proposal of marriage. She also rejects the hand of Caspar Goodwood, the charismatic son and heir of a wealthy Boston mill owner. Although Isabel is drawn to Caspar, her commitment to her independence precludes such a marriage, which she feels would demand the sacrifice of her freedom. The elder Touchett grows ill and, at the request of his son, leaves much of his estate to Isabel upon his death.
With her large legacy, Isabel travels the Continent and meets an American expatriate, Gilbert Osmond, in Florence. Although Isabel had previously rejected both Warburton and Goodwood, she accepts Osmond's proposal of marriage. She is unaware that this marriage has been actively promoted by the accomplished but untrustworthy Madame Merle, another American expatriate, whom Isabel had met at the Touchetts' estate.
Isabel and Osmond settle in Rome, but their marriage rapidly sours due to Osmond's for overwhelming egotism and his lack of genuine affection his wife. Isabel grows fond of Pansy, Osmond's presumed daughter by his first marriage, and wants to grant her wish to marry Ned Rosier, a young art collector. The snobbish Osmond would rather that Pansy accept the proposal of Warburton, who had previously proposed to Isabel. Isabel suspects, however, that Warburton may just be feigning interest in Pansy to get close to Isabel again.
The conflict creates even more strain within the unhappy marriage. Isabel then learns that Ralph is dying at his estate in England and prepares to go to him for his final hours, but Osmond selfishly opposes this plan. Meanwhile, Isabel learns from her sister-in-law that Pansy is actually the daughter of Madame Merle, who had an adulterous relationship with Osmond for several years.
Isabel visits Pansy one last time, who desperately begs her to return someday, something Isabel reluctantly promises. She then leaves, without telling her spiteful husband, to comfort the dying Ralph in England, where she remains until his death. Goodwood encounters her at Ralph's estate and begs her to leave Osmond and come away with him. He passionately embraces and kisses her, but Isabel flees. Goodwood seeks her out the next day, but is told she has set off again for Rome. The ending is ambiguous, and the reader is left to imagine whether Isabel returned to Osmond to suffer out her marriage in noble tragedy (perhaps for Pansy's sake) or whether she is going to rescue Pansy and leave Osmond. She does discover that Pansy is the daughter of Madam Merle, who had an affair with Osmond long ago, and was behind the marriage plans.
Review: The book is about the loss of freedom or of innocence. Isabel's sexual fears and diffidence. Although she is eventually shown as capable of deep arousal, she rejects Lord Warburton and Goodwood, two very strong and masculine suitors, in favor of the seemingly less threatening and hopelessly cold Osmond. Although the conventions of 19th century Anglo-American fiction prevented a completely frank treatment of this part of Isabel's character, James still makes it clear that her fate was at least partially shaped by her uneasiness with passionate commitment.
Opening Line: “UNDER certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Closing Line: “On which he looked up at her.”
Quotes: “To read between the lines was easier than to follow the text.”